Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Educated at Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Author of a historical biography (18C military history), and published articles on subjects ranging from the Crusades to Thomas Hardy to Russian history painting.
Notre-Dame de Paris (1999)
Striking and melodic modern musical adaptation
Wow! Plamondon and Cocciante's sung-through musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel is stunning: moving, exciting, funny, tragic. The cast is superb, the staging striking, the score melodic and exhilarating. In many respects, it's one of the more faithful adaptations, although the modernisation of some aspects of the setting is not entirely successful. There may be *some spoilers ahead*, as I make comparisons with the book and other adaptations.
Pierre Gringoire's role has been expanded to function as our streetwise narrator and guide through the story: Bruno Pelletier, a wise-cracking, adorable delight, is at his most mischievous in 'Val d'Amour', surrounded by Folies Bergère-style harlots! The other main characters fulfil the roles one expects. Luck Mervil is a dynamic, if youthful Clopin (it's a bit of a jolt when he says he's brought up Esméralda as a father they look the same age!), and comes into his own in the marvellous 'Cour des Miracles' scene, in which Pierre narrowly escapes hanging. Garou is an impressive and moving Quasimodo. Hélène Ségara is a graceful Esméralda, though perhaps *too* dignified I was more convinced by Lola Ponce in the Verona recording. Also, script-wise, there are problems with adaptations (like this) which give her a stronger, more mature personality, because, while it's more convincing in terms of her background, the plot hinges on her gullibility and immaturity re: the vain and duplicitous Phoebus (Patrick Fiori). A more plausibly streetwise Esméralda would be more likely to see through him and either avoid or manipulate him. Daniel Lavoie is heartbreaking, and a fine vocal presence, as Claude (although, as in most dramatisations, a couple of decades older than the character). He has some of the best songs, too: 'Tu vas me détruire', 'Etre prêtre' and 'Un matin, tu dansais' and it helps that the lyrics make powerful use of some of Claude's speeches from the novel. But then, his plight torn between his desires and his vows, between his traditional ecclesiastical education and the new learning of the Renaissance (here expressed in a duet with Pierre, 'Florence') is what drives the novel and gives it its tragic heart. He also depicts the Archdeacon's increasing mental breakdown, up to the final hysterical outburst that precipitates his death (dramatically staged). I'm unconvinced by the semi-modernisation making him a racist: the only gypsy with whom he really has a problem in the book is Esméralda, and that's because of his attraction to her. Julie Zenatti is effective as Fleur-de-Lys, here portrayed as an adolescent, but shrewd and scheming: she knows what Phoebus is, and seeks to secure her hold over him by telling him to "hang the gypsy".
The minimalist sets work well in terms of allowing the dance sequences to stand out, and to focus attention on the main characters. However, as mentioned already, I'm not entirely convinced by the partial modernisation. The grafting on of modern political themes undocumented refugees, police racism and brutality jars when we also have songs such as 'Florence', which places the action in the Renaissance and anticipates the coming Reformation. A full modernisation of setting might work (Dresden Semperoper did a 'Chicago'-style production of Schmidt's 'Notre Dame', with Esméralda-as-Roxie Hart), or a full mediaeval staging (as done in the Russian youth theatre Sed'moe Utro's production in Novokuznetsk), but this is neither one nor t'other.
Overall, though, this is a magnificent show, and (bar its omission of subplots around Esméralda's real parentage and Claude's relationship with his brother) is closer to the novel than most film versions. Also, it passes the ultimate test for any musical: you will start humming and singing some of the songs afterwards!
Notre-Dame de Paris (1996)
Stunning, pared-down dramatic ballet adaptation of Hugo's classic
Roland Petit's 1965 ballet 'Notre Dame de Paris' finally made it on to DVD in this stunning 1996 production from the Paris Opéra Ballet. It pares down Hugo's mediaeval urban epic and its large cast to focus on the tragedy of four protagonists: Esméralda, the gypsy dancer, and the three men with whom she becomes involved in different ways Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon imploding as his sexuality collides with his vows; Phoebus, the rakish soldier; and Quasimodo, the deformed foundling adopted by Claude and who is now the cathedral bellringer. The corps providing colourful support as citizens, soldiers, outlaws, & c.
Isabelle Guérin, as Esméralda, is more worldly than the book-character (whose naïvety is unconvincing, given her upbringing), more like Petit's other heroines, Carmen and Rosa, and her effect on the men is believable. She's a wonderfully expressive dancer. Laurent Hilaire (who partnered her gloriously in 'Le Parc') is superb as Claude, destroyed by his own desires and destroying all around him in the process. He's one of my all-time favourite tragic heroes, and, allowing for the limitations of what ballet can portray (it cannot show his philosophical and scientific interests), Hilaire's is the best portrayal I've seen of him to date, alongside Alain Cuny in the 1956 film. It helps that he was, at the time of filming, in the right age-group (34), unlike other portrayals of him, which are usually far too old. The intense dark eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones are perfect, too (and perfectly gorgeous): aside from the fact he's not balding, he looks more like the Claude I imagine. I deeply regret that Petit didn't choreograph the prison-scene: a bit of chest-baring cassock-ripping from Hilaire's Claude would have made me a very happy fangirl Nicolas Le Riche is a touching Quasimodo, the role Petit himself originally performed: what is especially effective is that his deformity is not depicted with prosthetics, but through movement, how the dancer uses his body. The ballet enables us to see him swinging on the bells, as described in the novel. Manuel Legris' Phoebus is as unlikeably flashy and arrogant as one expects, but his doomed assignation with Esméralda in the brothel is highly sensual.
What are also worthy of note are the costume and set designs: the sets draw on Victor Hugo's own ink sketches of Notre Dame, and the overall look of the production, including costumes and facial make-up, is derived from the cathedral's famous stained-glass windows. Bold, bright colours are intersected with black lines in the manner of window-leading. Yves Saint-Laurent, who designed the costumes, clearly liked this style and also used it in some of his non-theatrical 1960s designs, and it survives also in his packaging design for 'Rive Gauche'.
Whether you come to this as primarily a lover of ballet or as a lover of 'Notre Dame de Paris', this is a wonderful production. As hinted above, it's worth seeing in conjunction with Petit's 'Carmen' and 'L'Ange Bleu', which have related female leads. Indeed, 'L'Ange Bleu' (based on Heinrich Mann's 'Professor Unrat') is pretty much what would have happened if Esméralda/Claude had worked out
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)
'Brother Cadfael Misbehaves' in a botched Hugo adaptation
I was disappointed by this ITV adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' when I first saw it on TV 35 years ago, and it still disappoints. There may be spoilers ahead, as I compare it with other adaptations and the source novel.
While it does, at least, retain from the novel Claude's status as Archdeacon and adoptive parent of the founding Quasimodo, much else is derived from the 1939 Hollywood film, with the romanticisation of Pierre Gringoire and the happy ending it gives him and Esméralda (rather than Djali). There are other changes: Captain Phoebus is depicted as already married, instead of betrothed, and (*spoiler*) Claude's death is placed as the climax of the 'Porte Rouge' episode, rather than at the very end of the story.
The chief problems are in the casting. While the actors are mainly well-known and have done excellent work elsewhere, they are not well-cast in this. Derek Jacobi is particularly miscast as Claude. He's too old and the wrong physical type (Tim Piggott-Smith, who plays his subordinate Philippe an entirely superfluous new character or Robert Powell under-used as Phoebus would have been better in the role). He also comes across as too much the comfortable 'career cleric', not the driven, intense intellectual and scientist, with his agonising self-mortifications and self-destructive passions. I can't help but see this as more like Brother Cadfael being a bit naughty. In fact, his Cadfael, who has a colourful past, has far more personality than this depiction.
Lesley-Anne Down is a pretty Esméralda, but it's not her fault the role is written so vapidly. Gerry Sundquist makes an appealing lead, but he's not the Pierre I love in the book, more like the 1939 film-version. Anthony Hopkins is a competent Quasimodo, but he's not the most interesting character, despite Shoberl's unauthorised re-titling of the book in English, which film-makers seem to prefer for some reason. Overall, this lacklustre adaptation falls between the two other TV adaptations I've seen: it's inferior to the 1976 BBC version, which had the best ever Pierre in Christopher Gable, but still superior to the 1997 US version, which had a far-too-old Richard Harris as a book-burning Claude and Mandy Patinkin as Quasimodo the secret intellectual and author
(Yes, really!) More than ever, I regret the disappearance of the 1966 BBC adaptation starring James Maxwell
The only Jane Austen dramatisation I've ever enjoyed!
'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' manages to improve on both versions of the book (the original and the zombie version), with an exciting and entertaining plot, comedy that is actually funny, and plenty of action. I only wish that the book I was forced to study for O Level in 1981 had included zombies and swordfights. The characters were delightfully portrayed (the film gains from being played straight), and the use of so much of the original dialogue gives it a curious air of authenticity reminiscent of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'. The locations and costumes are lovely, and Lena Headey is especially stunning as the eye-patch wearing veteran warrior Lady Catherine. Matt Smith as Mr Collins is hilarious, rather than simply irritating. I would recommend this to anyone who was bored out of their mind by the original.
South Riding (1974)
Personalising the Political: a still-relevant and splendidly faithful dramatisation
YTV's 1974 adaptation of 'South Riding', scripted by Stan Barstow, is a triumph of literary adaptation faithful and vivid which shows up the atrocious 1938 film and the botched potential of the over-abridged 2011 BBC serialisation. The 13 50-minute episodes develop characters and subplots, building a full portrait of community life in the eastern East Riding (Winifred Holtby's fictional 'South Riding') in the 1930s. She subtitled it 'An English Landscape', and this is what we get: a landscape inhabited by people we get to know and love. It's a familiar landscape: I grew up in 'Kingsport' (Hull) and discovered the book as a teenager there in 1980; the setting was the era of my mother's childhood. The real Holderness locations are lovely: Withernsea lighthouse, Spurn Point, flat fields, huge skies, eroding clay cliffs. Never mind the occasional squire, whole towns have fallen off the edge of the world here.
Politics local, national, international shape the story, which begins, like the novel, in the press gallery of the County Council in Flintonbridge (Beverley) as two rival councillors a feudal, reactionary country squire and a consumptive Clydeside Red compete to be elected alderman. Three years later, one will be dead, and the other sacrificing his health to build a better future. Everything between births and deaths, breakdowns, blackmail, corruption, poverty, school life, love affairs, marriages and their destruction is framed in the context of local government. The personal is political, the political personal.
We see how political decisions affect people's lives: the Public Assistance Committee in Yarrold (Hedon) and the implosion of the Mitchells' marriage because of unemployment are especially chilling, given current (2011) UK politics. Lydia the gifted teenager forced to leave school when her mother dies still strikes a chord in debates about child carers, poverty and educational opportunity. We see, too, how politicians' characters and personal histories influence their actions. Hermione Baddeley is the definitive Emma Beddows: the first female alderman in the county (based on Alice Holtby), who has made herself indispensable to her community in compensation for an embittered marriage, and is infatuated with a man young enough to be her son. John Cater is also superb as Anthony Snaith, whose manipulations just manage to stay within the law, but who has a genuine desire to improve his community. He is a lonely man (in the book, traumatised by being abducted and abused by paedophiles in childhood), whose only emotional outlet is his love for his adorable cats.
The cast includes many familiar faces: Lesley Dunlop and Judi Bowker as Lydia and Midge; Clive Swift as Huggins, the lay preacher who takes 'lay' rather too literally; Ray Mort as the feckless but amiable Barney Holly; June Brown as Lily Sawdon; Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite. I enjoyed Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport as Sarah, the modernising new headmistress, and Robert, the debt-ridden squire, haunted by guilt over his wife's post-partum psychosis. However, both are rather too good-looking: Anna Maxwell-Martin and David Morrissey (2011 version) are more as I imagine, if a little young. I can't *quite* envisage Tutin's Sarah leaving a trail of unsuitable lovers she seems too ladylike, too wise while Davenport's Robert is too genial and does not resemble Mussolini-with-hair. In contrast, Norman Jones is too plain as Joe, the tubercular Scots socialist, who, in the novel, has a "pretty face" and "curling ruddy hair" (Winifred's 'beau idéal' ditto David in 'Anderby Wold'). I suspect he's been cast less handsome to skew viewers' affections towards Robert as 'romantic hero', but Joe's *moral* beauty still wins my heart. His social awkwardness and earnestness are touching: his chat-up line about Sarah's resemblance to Ellen Wilkinson; a painfully clumsy conversation about concert tickets when you *know* he really wants her to say she'd like his company; the harrowing Public Assistance meeting at Yarrold (Hedon) This is the only adaptation to discuss his background, organising Black South African miners (like Winifred's friend William Ballinger) until his health broke. He is a *real hero*. Unfortunately, Sarah takes this courageous, selfless man for granted as her ever-dependable, platonic best friend, as if his physical fragility desexualises him, and means he's not a 'real man'.
This highlights the most infuriating plot-thread: Sarah's sexual passion for Robert, the antithesis of all she values (and, ironically, secretly even more ill than Joe!). It's a self-betrayal fuelled by a dysfunctional childhood: she's a driven over-achiever, a violent alcoholic's child, needing approval from dominant men with whom she then quarrels *because* of their dominance. She's quite right to call him a "bucolic dictator"! When, at dinner in Manchester, he is flippant about her fears for her German friends, I wanted her to tip her dinner-plate over his head, *not* seduce him! (In her shoes, I'd take the first train home to seduce a delicate Glaswegian in Mrs Corner's garden-shed instead ) I certainly don't mourn Robert's winning the Alexander III Memorial Driving Award (a pity about Black Hussar, though!). Mind, I don't share book-Emma's belief that "it's not politics nor opinions" but the fundamental "things of the spirit" that count: politics and opinions *express* our essential values; one can't truly love someone with inimical values. (But then, Emma, too, is besotted with Robert!) And Sarah herself recognises that a meaningful relationship with him was always impossible.
The ending offers some hope: on the King's Jubilee, after a plane crash and the laying of the foundation stone for her new school, Sarah re-reads Joe's letter, which (uncharacteristically) she has been carrying in her handbag for 3 days. She is smiling surprisingly, given his worrying news, unless she has come to her senses and has plans
The camera then scans the South Riding landscape, and the final shot is of Winifred Holtby's grave in Rudston: a fitting tribute to the inspiring young woman who created this engaging fictional universe and its inhabitants.
South Riding (1938)
Earthquake hits Rudston: author spinning in her grave
This adaptation of Winifred Holtby's Holderness-set novel opens with a dedication to the author, who had died tragically young: "To her memory, this pictorial impression of her book is respectfully and gratefully dedicated". Well, the scriptwriters' idea of respect and gratitude is not mine. Winifred was probably spinning like a peerie in her grave, and in danger of toppling the Rudston monolith!
If the 2011 BBC adaptation was over-condensed at 3 hours, this 85 minute film is a caricature. It's sentimental and politically neutered: the book is neither. This is an alternative-universe 'South Riding', primarily for hard-core Sarah/Robert shippers. *Spoilers ahoy, comparing the novel and TV versions.*
The actors work hard, despite the inadequate script. Edna Best is engaging enough, if too beautiful, as Sarah. Marie Lohr, as Emma Beddows, is middle-aged and glamorous, not elderly and matriarchal. Robert Carne (Ralph Richardson) has lost his moroseness and bulky, Mussolini-esque looks to become a more conventional 'romantic hero'. The displaced Clydeside Red, Joe Astell (John Clements), is now English, fairly posh, and surprisingly extrovert even flirtatious in comparison with his adorably earnest and awkward book incarnation. However, he is canonically both "pretty" (the otherwise faithful 1974 adaptation failed abysmally on this, casting-wise!) and consumptive, with a hacking cough (omitted in the 2011 version). He also has some witty lines. Although his heroic background (organising Black South African miners based on Winifred's friend William Ballinger (1894-1974)) is ignored, he steals the film for any viewer with a hurt/comfort complex.
Sarah's shift of affections appears extremely abrupt. One scene, she and Joe are having a fun day out, with lots of flirting and humour; then, all it takes is the birth of the calf on her way home, and eyes meeting under a hideous chocolate-box portrait of Mrs Carne, for her to fixate on the squire. Tsk! Well, if *she* doesn't want Joe, I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than applying his chest-rub... (Ahem! 'Anderby Wold' joke!)
Nuance is sacrificed to melodrama in Muriel's storyline. The deliberate nods to 'Jane Eyre', handled with irony in the book, are played straight here. Ann Todd (renamed Madge, instead of Muriel) is a high camp cliché: riding a horse upstairs, and dramatically dying (yes, really!) at an opportune moment psychically linked to Robert. In the flashbacks, her costumes and hairstyles are extremely odd, considering they represent styles of the recent past. And I'm sure that even in an expensive psychiatric institution, marabou-trimmed satin nightwear was considered impractical for patients
The Holly family storyline is handled superficially. The cause of Annie's death is puzzling: she does not die in childbirth, as in the book; she appears to have a heart problem (borrowed from Robert, who is healthy in this adaptation?); but she dies just before a surgeon can operate (is this derived from Gertie, or has Annie has replaced Lily Sawdon as a cancer sufferer?). Lydia is underwritten and obsequious, far more attention being paid to Midge (Glynis Johns), whose maliciousness is reduced. Essentially, Lydia's role here is to demonstrate Sarah's benevolence, not as a character in her own right. Incidentally, the Hollys' home has an upstairs in this adaptation, being a double-decker bus or tram, not a railway carriage.
There are no real villains in the novel, but in the film, moralising censorship casts its shadow. Snaith is presented as an out-and-out crook, who has to be punished: in the book, he is a more ambiguous figure, damaged by childhood sexual abuse, working for his own advantage and yet *also* a genuine benefactor. Huggins appears to be a widower, so his liaison with Bessie can be treated more comically (although the blackmail and corruption are serious). Sarah and Robert's Manchester tryst is interrupted, not by an attack of angina, but by news about Muriel/Madge, before they get to the bedroom. Sarah later saves him from suicide by shotgun at the moment his wife keels over in Harrogate, thus removing all shadows of adultery and obstacles to the pairing. Part of the point in the novel is that he embodies the doomed, feudal past, so his survival is a bad plot-change.
The ending is literally flag-waving, saccharine National Government propaganda. Snaith's corrupt land deals are exposed, thanks to Sarah overhearing Bessie and Huggins. Robert steps in to save Joe's planned housing scheme and his career. Never mind 'Tullochgorum''s "Let Whig and Tory a' agree" here Socialists, Liberals, High Tories et al. unite to sing 'Land of Hope and Glory' for the coronation. Midge and Lydia become best friends. Sarah sits between Robert and Joe. Given book-Sarah's racy past, I wouldn't put a ménage-à-trois past her, but it's implied here that she and Robert will pair off, while the far more adorable Joe remains her platonic best friend. He needed rescuing (politically) by Robert, therefore cannot be 'romantic hero' material. This nonsense reflects a popular stereotype of disabled or chronically ill characters as desexualised: men, especially, are portrayed as emasculated by illness, because it makes them fragile, vulnerable and dependent stereotypically 'feminine' or 'childlike' qualities. By contrast, the novel's ending at the Silver Jubilee is bittersweet with mingled loss and triumph, hope and fear, with hints that Sarah may finally have come to her senses romantically, as she cherishes a heartbreaking letter in her handbag (Usually, she methodically organises her mail into baskets, so this is suspicious!)
All told, the film is disappointing and dishonest. The Cinegram magazine claims that "Readers of the book will recall the story, which, although changed in places there is a happy ending, for example still conveys the burning sincerity of its author
This intense realism will come as a refreshing tonic to audiences over the world". No: this is a 'South Riding' with teeth drawn and claws blunted. As a "respectful" memorial to the author, a feminist and socialist, it is insulting.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
For Ham the Bell Tolls
As an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris', William Dieterle's 1939 film is itself malformed, a picturesque travesty twisted out of shape by the demands of the Hays Office. It is the chief source of the 1996 Disney animation of the same title, inheriting elements from Wallace Worsley's 1923 silent adaptation. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film, and refer to other film versions.*
'Notre Dame de Paris' is a mediæval tragedy, dominated by Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon unhinged by the conflict between his sexuality and his vows of celibacy. The Hays Code, which superseded the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', forbade negative, controversial or disrespectful depictions of clergymen. As a result, this adaptation follows Worsley's 1923 film in rearranging the Frollo brothers to placate the Hays Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden) remains Archdeacon, but is a kindly old fellow, not the tormented young genius of the book. Instead, book-Claude's passion for Esméralda is transferred to his secular brother, Jehan (Cedric Hardwicke) a spoilt teenaged student and party-animal in the novel, but here as a sexually repressed, politically repressive middle-aged judge and adviser to Louis XI. (To anyone who knows the book, the linkage of Jehan with repression of *any* kind is hilarious !) These portrayals directly influenced the 1996 Disney animation: indeed, Disney's 'Minister Claude Frollo' caricatures Hardwicke's chiselled features and chaperon. Hardwicke conveys film-Jehan's not-all-that-suppressed desires in one scene in Notre Dame, he is clearly ogling Esméralda's cleavage while she is speaking to him (a rare trace of book-Jehan!) but, as he is not under vows, there is no powerful plot-reason for him to deny them in the first place. (Amusingly, Hampden and Hardwicke later returned to 15C Paris as Louis XI and Tristan L'Hermite in 'The Vagabond King' (1956).)
Without the psychological conflict between religious vows and human passions, the core plot loses its raison d'être. This adaptation therefore shoehorns in a 'political' conflict, making film-Jehan a persecutor of gypsies and a bitter opponent of intellectual freedom, as symbolised by the printing press, which he destroys. This seems to me a wilful misreading of book-Claude's pronouncement, "Ceci tuera celà". Hugo extrapolates how the printed word will kill the 'stone books' of the cathedrals; literature will supersede architecture as an art; freedom of thought will triumph over ecclesiastical domination. In the novel, Claude seems to accept the inevitability of this, ambivalently but calmly. He is a man on the cusp of the Renaissance: a scientist and polymath, as well as a priest, who can see equally the dangers and the opportunities ahead. To make his screen incarnation (under whatever name) a violent opponent of the new learning, while presenting Louis XI as its champion, is a gross distortion. (This was taken to an even more ridiculous extreme in the 1997 US TV version, with Richard Harris's elderly Dom Claude a reactionary fanatic leading the smashing of printing presses, and Mandy Patinkin's Quasimodo a secret intellectual and author!) Only Delannoy's 1956 film, starring Alain Cuny as Claude, has made much of his alchemy. Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) is transformed anachronistically from the amiable playwright and goat-fancier of the novel into a romantic young rebel, a radical satirist and political pamphleteer, who incurs film-Jehan's displeasure. He would fit more comfortably among the revolutionary students in 'Les Misérables'.
As in 1923, the use of the inaccurate popular English title again promotes the supporting character of Quasimodo to greater prominence. Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is thick-sliced Yorkshire ham. He is lugubrious and self-pitying, more like an elderly man than the young one the script acknowledges him to be during his trial. His prosthetics are overdone: a boy as severely deformed as this would have been unlikely to survive in 15C, and it is worth noting that, despite his misshapenness, Hugo's Quasimodo is notably agile. Anthony Quinn's 1956 portrayal was far more credible and vital. Laughton was, I think, simply unlucky with his casting in Hugo adaptations: in the Hays Code-pleasing bowdlerisation of 'Les Misérables', he had played Javert, when he would have been better as Jean Valjean (his physical bulk and presence are reminiscent of Harry Baur, the definitive film-Valjean), a role given instead to matinée idol Frederic March.
Maureen O'Hara makes a spirited and beautiful Esméralda, appropriately still in her teens, but nevertheless seems too intelligent and streetwise to have fallen for the duplicitous and caddish Phbus (Alan Marshal). (Book-Esméralda is alarmingly gullible, given that she has been raised among thieves and cut-throats.) In this version, he is really killed, which weakens the story. Part of the horror of Esméralda's plight in the book is that he recovers from his wound, but refuses to clear her name or lift a finger to help her in any way while she remains infatuated, precipitating the final tragedy by calling his name at the least opportune moment possible. Again, the Hays Code interfered in depicting injustice: individual officials could be depicted as wicked or corrupt, but the rule of law and authority itself must be upheld. Hence the film depicts the king as essentially benevolent, but badly advised by the hypocritical Jehan, who persecutes Esméralda for spurning his advances.
There is excellent work from the supporting cast, notably Thomas Mitchell as a wily Clopin Trouillefou, and the production values are good. I wonder whether the set of old Paris was the same one used for the 1923 silent version? The happy ending is a final bowdlerisation, far less powerful than that of the novel: of the cinema versions, only Delannoy's 1956 film has taken us into the charnel-house at Montfaucon. Pierre gets the girl, as well as the goat, and Quasimodo gazes down wistfully as they go off together. Perhaps this time, *he* should have run off with Djali as a consolation prize?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
A potential epic cruelly deformed by censorship and Chaney's ape-man
Visually, Wallace Worsley's adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' is stunning: the lavish sets are atmospheric; the costumes, while not always historically accurate, are attractive; and the film is lively and well-shot, with (on the whole) an excellent cast. It could have been a superb early Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the script was maimed by censorship, which set the tone for subsequent US attempts to film Hugo's spectacular novel of 15C Paris. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film.*
The title itself reflects part of the problem. Despite Victor Hugo's disapproval, since 1832, many popular English-language translations of 'Notre Dame de Paris' have appeared under the 'Hunchback' title, promoting the supporting character of Quasimodo to the leading role. The NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', which prefigured the Hays Code, further fuelled this change of narrative focus. They prohibited the depiction of the clergy in ways that might provoke hostility or loss of respect: a huge obstacle in adapting this novel, which centres upon Claude Frollo, a brilliant young priest who destroys himself and all he loves because he can no longer cope with his vow of celibacy. Other characters were also problematic for the censors: Esméralda's long-lost mother is a penitent former prostitute; the teenaged student Jehan is a drunkard and frequenter of brothels; Phbus is a rake who takes Esméralda to a sleazy 'house of assignation' and almost succeeds in seducing her indeed, she plasters herself over him more or less begging him to take her! How could the book be sanitised for filming under NAMPI rules?
The script retains Claude Frollo's identity as Archdeacon, but makes him remain the sweet, saintly adoptive father of the deformed foundling Quasimodo. It transfers his passion for Esméralda and his alchemy to his secular brother, Jehan a spoilt and dissolute undergraduate in the book, but here a middle-aged villain, in league with the king of the underworld, Clopin. Without the psychological conflict over religious vows, the 'thwarted desire' plot loses meaning and intensity. It becomes just another story in which a man ruthlessly pursues a girl who loves someone else. It also wastes the talents of the British actor Nigel de Brulier, whose ascetically handsome features make him one of the best film-Claudes in looks. He could have played Hugo's Claude magnificently, judging by his performance as the prophet Jokanaan, tormented by another provocative teenaged dancer in Alla Nazimova's film of Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé'. Instead, all he has to do is look pious in a cassock. Film-Jehan (Brandon Hurst) is merely a moustache-twirling melodrama villain, or would be, if he had a moustache!
The moustache, however, in one of Hugo's more egregious anachronisms, belongs to Phbus de Châteaupers (Norman Kerry), whom the script cleans up to be a conventional romantic lead (a decision copied by Disney in 1996). Yes, he tries to seduce Esméralda (the delightful Patsy Ruth Miller young, carefree and charming), but here she resists, and he is won over by her virtue. The film also invents a Cinderella-type scene where she goes to a ball, dressed up as a lady, and captures his heart from his aristocratic fiancée Fleur-de-Lys. And of course, despite the various trials and tribulations, they will be rewarded with a happy ending. Pierre Gringoire's role is minimised to that of occasional comic relief: a pity, as he is great fun when he is on screen. Pâquette/Sister Gudule, Esméralda's mother, makes her only Hollywood appearance in this adaptation, in sanitised form, played by Gladys Brockwell. In flashback, we see her as a wealthy lady (presumably a widow) in a grand house, not as the impoverished young prostitute of the novel. Her death is placed earlier than in the novel and in somewhat different circumstances. The script bungles the drama of the belated recognition and reconciliation between mother and daughter: here, Pâquette recognises her child, then dies but Esméralda apparently remains none the wiser. Poignant though this is, it seems an odd anti-climax: did this plot-element seem too melodramatic even for 1920s audiences?
These days, the reputation of the film rests chiefly on being a star-vehicle for Lon Chaney as Quasimodo much overrated, I thought. His make-up was certainly elaborate by the standards of the time indeed, too extravagant to be convincing. Quasimodo is a twenty-year-old boy with severe disabilities: he is not a human-ape hybrid, which is what Chaney (wearing an alarming amount of false body-hair during the flogging scene) appears to be playing. In a cinematic reversal of evolution, he is more like an ancestor of King Kong: just swap the Gothic towers of Notre Dame for the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building. The ending, too, prefigures that of the great ape film: the heroic 'monster' is killed off so that the physically attractive young lovers can be reconciled. It's certainly not Victor Hugo! Indeed, having Quasimodo expire in the arms of his adoptive father, Claude, so far overturns the tragic climax of the novel that it belongs in an entirely alternative universe.
Without the distortions of narrative and character imposed by censorship, the talents assembled here could have made a wonderful film. Sadly, the NAMPI restrictions left it picturesque but stunted and deformed much like Quasimodo himself.
Notre-Dame de Paris (1956)
"So come up to the lab " for some spectacular cinematic alchemy!
The opening of this film relating the finding of the word 'Ananké' (which the English-language narrator irritatingly mispronounces as 'Anankh'!) on the wall of the cathedral signals that Jean Delannoy has given us the best cinema version of 'Notre Dame de Paris' yet. It is the closest in spirit to the book in picaresque colour and in its final tragedies. *Some spoilers follow, comparing the book and the film, and touching upon other film adaptations.*
While international distribution (especially in the US) meant that Delannoy still had to fudge Claude's priesthood (being addressed as "Maître/Master Frollo"), his sober dress and the fact he works in Notre Dame make it implicit indeed, obvious to anyone familiar with the book, as French audiences are. His younger brother Jehan is thus restored to his (im)proper and impish self as a wastrel student (Maurice Sarfati), who first appears dressed as an imp for the Feast of Fools. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, Jehan became a middle-aged substitute for his brother in his relationship with Esméralda.) There are, nevertheless, differences between the French and English versions. Because of the Hays Code, Quasimodo is made *King* of Fools, *not* Pope, in the English dub, the scene being shot with two different crowns. The French version also includes scenes with Pierre after Esméralda's arrest, and an extended scene of Claude's breakdown, returning to La Falourdel's, corresponding to the book's chapter 'Fièvre' presumably cut because the English title overemphasises Quasimodo.
Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida have top billing, but Alain Cuny quietly dominates the film as he should. Claude, not Quasimodo, is the most interesting central character: the brilliant, tormented scholar and scientist as Romantic tragic hero/anti-hero. Although over a decade too old for the role, Cuny has the right air of anguished intensity and self-destructive passion. Even as he brings suffering on others, he himself suffers still more deeply, all haunted eyes and strong cheekbones. (An acquaintance observed his hairstyle is too 1950s, but the anachronism is less significant than the fact he has so much hair at all: book-Claude's hair has receded into his tonsure!) This is the only film version that shows his alchemical researches, and sets Louis XI's incognito visit, as 'Compère Tourangeau', in his laboratory, rather than in his rooms in the cloisters. This atmospheric scene captivated me when I first saw the film on TV as a child, and as a teenager I fell in love with Claude in the book (recognising a fellow-Aspie). My chief regret is that (as usual) the passionate confrontation in prison from 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza' is omitted: this Claude is certainly handsome enough for some chest-baring cassock-ripping He gives us the film's most memorable moments: his rapt face framed by the broken window of the Grande Salle of the Palais de Justice, while in the adjacent pane we see the reflection of what grips his attention Esméralda dancing; how he intones her name over his experiments (which reminds me of Ezra Pound's marvellous 'The Alchemist: Chant for the Transmutation of Metals': "Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light,/gift of the amber of the sun,/Give light to the metal"); his torment at La Falourdel's, watching Phoebus (Jean Danet, suitably smug and flashy) seduce Esméralda; scratching 'Ananké' on the wall, watched by an uncomprehending Quasimodo; returning to the cathedral by moonlight, and crossing himself (cut from the English-language dub) when he sees Esméralda in ghostly white. In his last moments, he stretches out his arms, crucified by his forbidden desires, before falling. It is a superb performance, unshowy, but emotionally wrenching.
Gina Lollobrigida is somewhat mature and overtly sexy to be entirely convincing as a virginal teenager, but she has glamour, vitality, and (with choreography by Massine) dances better than most screen Esméraldas. It is believable that an otherwise ascetic and intellectual priest could be driven to crime and madness for such a beauty. Of course, with such a bright and spirited Esméralda, the question remains as to how she can be so stupid as to fall for Phoebus's smarmy charms, but that is part of the tragedy of the book and, indeed, such calamities happen in life. Her comic relationship with Pierre Gringoire (Robert Hirsch) is delightful, with a very cute Djali as the third party in their 'marriage'. It is wonderful to see so much of Pierre, without him being rewritten as a conventional romantic lead (as in 1939 and 1982). Clopin is played somewhat younger than usual by Philippe Clay: Villon-esque, a figure from Bosch or Breughel. Quinn is the best film Quasimodo: alarming and touching by turns, unsentimentalised, and believable. Unlike Chaney or Laughton, whose deformities were far too exaggerated, he looks as if he could have survived childhood in 15C. He is deaf, and seems to have learning disabilities, as the book implies. Fleur-de-Lys (Danielle Dumont) and her friends, in their henins and colourful gowns, look as if they could have stepped out of an illuminated manuscript. Phoebus is as obnoxious and shallow as written: only in the English dub is he softened slightly by being made to regret that he could not have saved Esméralda himself.
The last part of the story is truncated because of the running-time, hence the change in the events at the Bastille, and in the circumstances of Esméralda and Clopin's deaths. However, it is still far more effective than the bowdlerised 'happier' endings imposed by the 1923, 1939, 1982, 1996 and 1997 versions. The conclusion at Montfaucon is retained, and is movingly portrayed. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, which gives a better impression of the novel than any other cinema adaptation to date, and confirms my belief that French literature usually fares best in the hands of French film-makers.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
If you love the book... this travesty is a penance
Watching this bowdlerisation of one of my favourite novels is probably the nearest I will ever get to a mediaeval-style penance such as wearing a hairshirt. I'm giving the film 4 stars only for the quality of the animation: the cityscapes and the cathedral are beautifully realised. There are a few (very few) moments of expressionistic power: the 'Hellfire' sequence in particular reminded me of Musorgskii's 'Night on the Bald Mountain' in 'Fantasia', and suggests the story's real tragic, passionate heart, but... It's *not* my beloved 'Notre Dame de Paris'.
What it is is a sanitised, smugly 'feel-good' fable with a happy ending, trying to hitch a ride on a masterpiece by stealing a few character-names and concepts from the novel. It is heavily indebted to previous Hollywood versions which were also far from faithful. It follows the 1923 and 1939 films (which were prevented from depicting the clergy 'disrespectfully' by the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points' and the Hays Code respectively) in turning the Frollo brothers into a 'good' Archdeacon and an 'evil' secular judge, with the latter having Claude's tortured passion for Esmeralda. (Never mind the fact that without a conflict over his priestly vows of celibacy, this plot line is weakened drastically.) 'Judge' Frollo here even looks like Cedric Hardwicke from the 1939 film, down to his chaperon hat, although here he has at least been named Claude. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, the sexually repressed 'evil' brother was Jehan hilarious if you know the book!) This film also follows Hugo's stage version, 'La Esmeralda' (1835) and the 1923 film in de-sleazing Phbus and making him the romantic lead. (SPOILERS AHOY) The death of Quasimodo's young mother, hitting her head on the steps, in the prologue seems to me to borrow from Pâquette's death near the end of the novel. In turn, I wonder if the scene of the burning of the miller's cottage inspired Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' (2000)?
While these changes are understandable in trying to make a film for children from a very adult novel (and I appreciate that I'm *not* the target audience), I wonder *why* they did it? What was the point? Surely it would have made more sense to write an *entirely original* story to express the desired themes, than grafting it parasitically on to a classic? For one thing, it turns the novel on its head by making a smarmy, shallow playboy into a dashing romantic lead, and the proto-Dostoevskian, intellectually brilliant but sexually and emotionally tormented young tragic hero/anti-hero into a sneering villain old enough to be his father! One of the most infuriating scenes is the adoption of Quasimodo. In the book, he is placed in the cathedral as a foundling, aged about 4. Claude Frollo, already a priest at 19, adopts him out of genuine compassion, because he himself has just been orphaned and left to care for his baby brother. This poignant scene is replaced with a horrific crime. Claude is also depicted as a cruel 'parent', keeping Quasimodo imprisoned in the cathedral and instilling an inferiority complex: in the book, he teaches the boy basic literacy (despite his physical and learning disabilities), and devises sign-language for him when he loses his hearing. The film perpetrates a grotesque distortion of character and tone.
Worse, this film has 'poisoned the well' for at least some younger viewers when they later approach the book, judging by some online book reviews. For every one that has embraced entering Hugo's stunning but heartbreaking universe, there are several who complain that the novel "isn't like the Disney film"; that "none of the characters are sympathetic" or "likeable" (really?! I read it in my mid-teens and fell in love with the Archdeacon of Josas at first read!), that there's too much about alchemy or architecture or philosophy or human sexuality
My sole consolation is imagining Dom Claude anathematising the entire Disney Corporation in full solemn ritual, with bell, book and candle. (I rather think he'd enjoy doing it, too!) I now have this nightmare of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy starring as 'The Krazy Karamazov Brothers': it no longer seems impossible...